You recreate the seasons when you cure country ham,” says Rufus Brown, proprietor of Johnston County Hams in Smithfield, North Carolina. Country ham hearkens back to a time before refrigeration, when meat was rubbed with salt, hung to cure, and, in the process, underwent the changes in temperature typical of any agricultural year, with the ham finally ready to eat at Christmas.
In the interests of production, nine months are compressed into three, as Rufus and his small team of processors move the hams from one temperature-controlled room to another to replicate climate changes. But other than time compression, the method remains the same. Rufus learned the craft from his father, who was a master curer, and he insists on keeping things hands-on, just as his father did.